Our new pastor recently held a �Project Night� where members of the congregation were invited to share their ideas for the future of our parish. This was a new experience for most of us. Our previous pastor of ten years maintained tight control over the Parish Council. Members were not permitted to discuss topics that were not on his agenda.
Input from the parishioners was more than discouraged. Parishioners were not permitted to attend council meetings.
Being ruled with an iron fist did not sit well with many. Council members were assigned duties, but were allowed little input. Most couldn�t wait for their terms to end. Some members of the congregation began attending a neighboring parish. And a few left the Church altogether.
Some organized a group to meet with the bishop in the hopes of getting a new priest for our parish. Others, however, respected his stern pastoral guidance and were obedient to his direction. The parish became somewhat divided and eventually the bishop decided to make a change.
The new pastor is quite the opposite. I had seen our old pastor without his collar only once in ten years, and that was when I knocked on his door unexpectedly. I haven�t seen our new priest wear his collar yet. I have seen him in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and one with a picture of the Bates Motel. (Norman Bates and the priesthood � now there�s a scary combination!)
After ten years of suppression, one might expect a large turnout for an event such as Project Night, but only ten people came, the youngest being 50 years old. Father had planned to divide us into three groups. One would discuss the spiritual needs of the parish, another the corporal needs, and the third, the physical needs. Instead, we remained together and spent time on each topic.
The first person to speak remarked that we could not possibly meet the corporal and physical needs of the parish until we get our Spiritual lives in order. Last month, Father announced we would have Holy Hour on the first Thursday of each month -- a monthly opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration, prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Six people came to the first one.
A number of ways to increase Spiritual awareness were then discussed. Someone suggested 40 Hours Devotions. Before Vatican II, 40 Hours was an annual event in our church with Eucharistic Adoration, prayer and guest speakers. Always the pessimist, I wondered how many would attend 40 Hours Devotions if only six people were willing to come for one hour. I contend that we need to get people excited about their faith before such events will have an impact.
Not much was said about the corporal needs of our parish. It was generally agreed that we need to be more aware of the plight of the elderly and poor, and perhaps share information and resources with other churches in the community.
When the topic turned to the physical needs, the ideas began to flow. We need a wheelchair ramp. We need greeters. Move the organ to the front of the church. Replace the organ with a synthesizer. Remove the choir loft so people who are not in the choir can�t sit there. (Obviously, he didn�t want the choir sitting there either!) Bring the altar out into the church and place the pews in a semi-circle. Remove the kneelers. Whoa!
I pointed out that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says we are to kneel from the end of the Sanctus to the Great Amen, and just because some Catholic churches have removed their kneelers does not make it right. Expecting some reinforcement from our pastor, I didn�t get any. He pointed out that most European churches do not have kneelers and in fact the Apostles �reclined� at the Last Supper.
I had also come prepared with an article by a Catholic priest who argued that the semi-circle configuration is not suitable for Catholic liturgical celebrations. The author contends that the semi-circle is designed for theater and focuses attention on the celebrant. When the suggestion arose, I read an excerpt of the article to the group. My intent was only to point out that reconfigurations should not be done on a whim. Subtle environmental changes may have unforeseen influence on how people perceive the Mass. When does the focus shift away from worship and toward performance? Again, Father spoke up to question the source of this article.
Our building is approaching its centennial. It is not wheelchair accessible, and this has been a much discussed situation for many years. Parishioners had always wanted to construct a ramp, but the sixty inch rise and congested layout makes for a challenging design. The ramp was a taboo subject with the previous pastor. Doing the job right would be an expensive project benefiting few people, so it was not on his agenda. And anything not on Father�s agenda was not to be discussed.
With their previous impediment gone, the Parish Council seems determined to make access for the handicapped the top priority. I sometimes wonder whether they are acting out of concern for others or whether they just want to prove that it can be done. My apprehension comes from the realization that a ramp to a 60 inch high floor must be an absolute minimum of 60 feet long with a resting platform halfway up (to meet ADA requirements). Once you get to the landing at the top of the steps, there is a 4 inch step to the main floor. Much thought needs to go into the design. At the meeting, the announcement was made that an architect is currently designing the ramp and that it will provide access not only to the main floor of the church, but also to the basement. Now this I have to see! Personally, I am not convinced a ramp is the answer. While it may provide access for wheelchairs, it will not help the vast majority of our challenged parishioners who are not wheelchair bound, but have limited mobility. Ideally, we need a mechanical lift of some sort.
Other ideas presented at the meeting also made me uncomfortable. The sanctuary of our church has been remodeled at least twice in 90 plus years. In the early years, it was very ornate and beautifully detailed. Much of this was retained during the middle of the 20th century though some of the detail on the side altars was removed. It was during the 1970�s post-Vatican II remodeling where the entire sanctuary was demolished and replaced with an understated bland contemporary design, totally incompatible with the remaining architecture. It looks as if someone sawed off the front of the church and replaced it with a slice of a different church from another era (and denomination!)
Our church has some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows to be found. The focus at the rear of the present sanctuary is a stained-glass window of the risen Christ which was added during the last remodeling. The newer window clashes with the old windows. The shapes are different; the colors are different, the artistry is different; the lines are different, the frames are different. It looks out of place. All seemed to agree that it needs to go. But what do we replace it with?
One person suggested it be replaced with another stained-glass window which has come into our possession � also with different colors, different shapes, different artist, and different lines. Someone suggested we cover the existing window with a curtain. In my opinion, the entire sanctuary needs to be rebuilt, in which case the window could be eliminated. Most everyone recognizes the problem, but remedial ideas are many.
Changes, changes, changes. We certainly have some problems that must be addressed. But, Project Night brought forth a few solutions for which there are no known problems. I�m reminded of a situation several years ago when a flu epidemic was expected to ravage the United States one particular winter. (I believe it was the infamous Swine Flu.) A massive effort was made to inoculate the entire population. When the epidemic failed to materialize, someone quipped that the vaccine was �a cure for which there is no known disease.� I�m very leery about change without reason, and I�ve come to learn St. Thomas Aquinas may agree. More about that later.